I’m a little peeved at myself for my last post…I don’t regret what I said, but it was more self-centered than I would have liked, and left out the incredible parts of living abroad. With that in mind, I’m going to look today at another article – Judy Bacharach’s “Twice Branded – Western Women in Muslim Lands” (bint battuta already dug into it here). You may also want to take a gander at the growing catfight between Phyllis Chesler and Naomi Wolf (documented pretty clearly on Chesler’s site)
The article, which you ought to go read before continuing here, basically outlines how western* women are treated in Muslim countries – according to Bacharach, we are forced into marriages, or if we choose to marry, our husbands will turn on us Not Without My Daughter style, or if we don’t marry, we’ll be branded as loose women. Real thoughtful stuff.
Okay – let’s get the truths out of the way first. Yes, there have been cases of women moving to certain Muslim countries with laws on the books that take away former nationality upon marriage (Iran has done this, whether you’re a believer of Betty Mahmoody’s story or not). Yes, there have been some highly publicized cases of forced marriage in Egypt. And yes, there is a prevailing attitude among some young men in some countries (including non-Muslim ones – anyone been groped in Italy?) that western – especially American – women are loose. Acknowledged, moving on.
That said, the first rule when writing about Muslim countries is to lump all Muslims together, as if they are one brainless homogeneous blob. The second rule, of course, is to ignore all of the happy, positive, and successful marriages between western women and Muslim men (or, assume that if there is a divorce, that it must have been because the man was Muslim…because, you know, no two people from the same culture ever divorce!) And while you’re at it, simply ignore any positive experiences in general from women in the Middle East and North Africa that don’t fit your agenda. The third rule is that you must never, ever, place blame on the poor western woman who went to a chatroom, met her husband-to-be, fell in love without ever hearing his voice or seeing his face, then flew a thousand miles to marry him and then – oh noes! – found that he wasn’t who he said he was. The fourth is that you must only trust the viewpoints of “Muslim reformers” and apostates: Muslim women are never to be trusted. And of course, never forget the most important rule of writing about Muslim countries – you must, must take every anecdotal incident as gospel.
Let’s go through these again, with examples.
Rule #1: All Muslims Are the Same.
Because of her experience, the occasional young American woman who is thinking of marrying a Muslim with an urge to return to his own country visits Chesler for advice. And she tells them what she knows: “This man you love will change overnight before your eyes. You will live but you will wish you were dead.”
Oh yes, Phyllis Chesler. The same Phyllis Chesler who says things like:
Most Muslim girls and women are not given a choice about wearing the chador, burqa, abaya, niqab, jilbab, or hijab (headscarf), and those who resist are beaten, threatened with death, arrested, caned or lashed, jailed, or honor murdered by their own families.
Ahhh yes, the ol’ argument that Muslim women are forced to wear hijab. Exempting Iran and KSA, which both have laws on the books, I fail to see how Chesler could arrive at the conclusion that “most” Muslim women aren’t given the choice. Is she privy to some information that I’m not? Has she entered the households of Muslim men and women to determine who is, and is not, forced by their families? Even if she had, would she listen?
But let’s move on, to Rule #2: Ignore Positive Examples
My friend Nasser says that he was told by “a leading female American journalist” that the press is “not interested by success stories of western women.” I don’t disagree. Take this lovely story in Saudi Aramco World: Nancy Abeiderrahmane is a British woman who has lived in Mauritania with her husband for 30 years and is responsible for commercializing camel milk in the country. Of course, the story doesn’t even touch on Nancy’s marriage (why would it?), making it totally uninteresting to western feminist journalists. Even if they were to pay attention, Nancy’s success in Mauritania would be treated as an anomaly.
In other words, nobody hears about the tons of western women who have successful marriages with Muslim men. No one hears statistics at all, let alone personal stories. That would simply blow their minds, and screw up their perspective that allows them to keep their hate nice and fresh.
Rule #3: It Is Always the Muslim’s Fault
There are lots of horror stories – some of which I’m sure are true – of western women marrying Muslim men, going to live in their country of origin, and finding out that things were not as they previously seemed. As much as I can’t stand Phyllis Chesler, I don’t doubt her life story (she married an Afghan peer in the U.S., moved to Afghanistan with him, and was mistreated by him and his family). And yet, I can’t doubt her naiveté: Who moves to a foreign country on a lark without doing their research? Same goes for Betty Mahmoody, who was blissfully unaware that Iranian law would consider her an Iranian, not an American. I feel sympathy for these women and how they were treated, but I also question the lack of blame placed on them – and the surely hundreds of women since – who have gone to a country with their husband or to marry someone, not learned the language, not studied the culture, then placed all of the blame on Islam, capitalizing on their stories in the process.
As one commenter on Bint Battuta’s post remarks:
The women I have tried to help in Jordan had no clue what they were getting into. Some of them were just plain uneducated and not smart. Some were mentally imbalanced or so thoroughly victims their marriages never would have made it in the US.
I’ve seen plenty of this myself, too. It’s becoming very common for Canadian and American women to meet Moroccan men online then travel there to live for a time, get married, and return home with their new husbands. Some of these marriages are successful – typically when the woman lives in Morocco for awhile before the wedding – but plenty of others fail precisely because the woman goes into it without bothering to understand her husband’s culture, or find out what he believes about things like religion and children, or assumes that she can change him.
Rule #4: Only Trust Muslim “Reformists.”
When was the last time you heard the opinion of a woman wearing hijab cited in popular media? Never? Exactly. That’s because all women are forced to wear hijab, of course!
What I find particularly funny is how these criticists (what else can you call them?) frequently remark upon how Muslim women are oppressed and silenced by Muslim men, then continue to oppress and silence them by not considering their voices in the media.
The rule, of course, is that you can only consider the voices of Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Irshad Manji, Wafa Sultan, and Mona Eltahawy. Theirs are the only valid voices of Muslim women, because they’ve realized the error of their ways.** Never trust a woman wearing hijab – obviously someone put her up to it. Which brings me to the last rule…
Rule #5: Take Every Anecdote As Gospel
In her piece, Bachrach shares an anecdote about being told she should take her hamburger to her room rather than eat it in the hotel’s restaurant as if it were gospel. Chesler, in a recent piece, uses sweeping generalizations like “It is well known that the Arabs and Muslims kept and still keep sex slaves” and “A fully ‘covered’ girl-child, anywhere between the ages of 10-15, may still be forced into an arranged marriage, perhaps with her first cousin, perhaps with a man old enough to be her grandfather, and she is not allowed to leave him, not even if he beats her black and blue every single day.”
It’s important, of course, that whenever you have a negative experience in a Muslim country, you make general, sweeping statements about how that experience is the norm. Nevermind the thousands of Muslim women who are waiting until they finish their educations to get married. Nevermind the legal reforms. Obviously, only negative experiences count. Because…
Remember: All Muslims Are The Same
And don’t forget – all Muslims are exactly the same. If one forces his daughter to wear hijab, they all must. If one beats his wife, it must be because the Qur’an told him to do it. And if one young Muslim woman gets a PhD and then chooses a husband…oh wait, no…that would obviously never happen.
*I hate the term “western” but until somebody finds a better way to reference a population, I will continue to use it. But let it be known…I think it sucks.
**I totally respect all four of these women, but that does not make their opinions more correct or valid than the opinions of women who disagree with them.